When President John F. Kennedy made his bold declaration in 1961 that America would, before the end of that decade, send a man to the moon and return him safely to the Earth, there was little doubt our country would meet that lofty goal, and absolutely no doubt we would do it on our own.
Now, six decades later, America’s ability to send astronauts into space, including to the International Space Station (ISS), clearly has been hobbled by a short-sighted (if not foolhardy) U.S. government decision at the turn of this century to rely on Russian-built rockets to launch heavy payloads into space.
The ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine and the resulting U.S.-led sanctions targeting Russia is proving the folly of allowing our country to have become dependent on a potential — and now demonstrably real — adversary in a key national security area.
With the head of Russia’s space program late last month threatening to leave an American astronaut aboard the ISS with no way home, the stupidity of our space program becoming dependent on Russian heavy launch vehicles and space capsules has come into sharp focus, regardless of whether Putin’s government would actually follow through on such a threat.
For decades, Russia and the United States have cooperated in their civilian space programs, especially in manning the ISS. This relationship has permitted both nations to reap the benefits of the space station’s breakthroughs in medicine, telecommunications and many other arenas, while sharing the expense of such dangerous and costly activities.
There is, however, a pronounced difference between cooperation and dependency, and it is in the matter of launching the heavy space capsules to the ISS only by using Russian rockets where the real problem lies.
Our Space Shuttle program ended more than a decade ago, in 2011. For the next nine years, astronauts needing to be ferried to the ISS relied entirely on Russian launch vehicles to make the trek. That problematic and short-sighted dependency eased a bit in 2020, when a pair of American astronauts successfully docked with the ISS after being launched into orbit by an Elon Musk-built “Falcon Heavy” rocket carrying the “Crew Dragon” capsule.
That 2020 launch represented a milestone for American rocketry, reflecting the fact that in recent years, the U.S. has made significant strides in the development of private launch vehicles, including Musk’s Space X Falcon Heavy and Jeff Bezos’s “Blue Origin.” No longer are we as a country dependent only on NASA and federal appropriations for building large launch vehicles capable of sending astronauts into space, including to the ISS.
However, these civilian versions of NASA’s long-discontinued Saturn V heavy launch vehicle (still considered the most powerful rocket ever produced, and the one that sent the first humans to the surface of the moon in 1969) are not yet available routinely to carry men and women to the ISS. Hence our continued dependence on Russia’s space agency (Roscosmos) for carrying our astronauts to the ISS at a cost of close to $90 million per passenger (far more than the projected cost of seats on U.S. space capsules).
The cooperative relationship between our two countries in manning the ISS has itself been bumpy since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Russia’s aggression in Ukraine that year prompted the Congress, in a move led by former Sen. John McCain, to at least temporarily prohibit use of Russian rockets to launch American satellites with national security purposes. That dispute also resulted in Russia declaring it would end the bilateral ISS cooperation several years earlier than had been agreed previously.
Whether this year’s far more serious Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the extensive sanctions levied on Moscow in its wake, will result in a complete break between American and Russian cooperation in launch vehicles, manned space capsules and the ISS remains to be seen. Recent events, however, should serve as a wake up call to the Biden Administration and to congressional leaders that continuing such dependency carries unacceptably serious risks.